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Long-Term Military Planning: What Is It Good For?

On Monday I mused on a degree of lassitude evident in near-to-long-term defense planning, and at Small Wars Journal, Steven Metz of the Army War College goes way further. After spending a few days at a Defense Department forum that tried to think through what the threats to national security in the year 2029 will look like, Metz found himself remembering the way things used to be:

A few years ago symposia and documents dealing with the future strategic environment were dominated by discussions of “the long war,” “GWOT,” terrorism, proliferation, and Islamic extremism. For the past two years, the focus has been on “hybrid threats.” In the event I just attended, those things were almost wholly absent from the discussion. Everything centered on technological change, economic turmoil, culture, demographics, and climate change.

In short, that’s not planning, that’s faddishness. It’s not anticipating the potential threats of tomorrow, it’s channeling the political tastes of the present. Metz, in a very economical post, takes the military to task for presuming that its future task will be invading “collapsed states” to stabilize them, outside of what he considers a prudent first-order consideration of the national interest. (In a way this kind of thinking speaks to a recent debate about whether counterinsurgency theorists are actually advocating more U.S. involvement in counterinsurgencies or not.) Metz’s conclusion:

I was aghast when people talked about future missions like controlling the vast slums of Lagos or Karachi, both because I don’t think those who made this point understood the magnitude of such a task, and because I don’t think doing so would promote American security. None of the architects or implementers of 9/11 were motivated by the lack of jobs or emerged from a teeming slum. On 9/11 we were attacked by a dispersed, non-state entity but in a perfect illustration of the idea that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, we did what we knew how to do: we overthrew two national governments. But–and this is the important part—because there were no subsequent successful attacks on the United States, we assumed this was the right approach. I non-concur. …

[I]f you buy the notion that future threats will not be linked to a particular piece of geography–enemies can mobilize resources and undertake operations from almost anywhere–then seizing and controlling terrain will no longer be the essence of security. This led me to predict at the symposium that 20 years hence, the Army’s role in promoting American security will decline precipitously.

All this raises the question of what this sort of ostensible long-term planning is good for. I wasn’t at the forum, but I would be very surprised if many in the Army would be willing to sign on to Metz’s conclusion that in 20 years it won’t be as important an institution as it is now. What institution would, after all? But it’s really the sort of thing that needs to be considered before larding the forecasts with assumptions that lead to the conclusion that the institution asking the questions needs to retain a position of paramount importance. Really, read the whole post.

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